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Physical anthropology (was: RE: Owed Explanation I (Was Re: Ebonic Xmas))

From:And Rosta <a.rosta@...>
Date:Sunday, January 16, 2000, 16:12
[Can I suggest followups go to Conculture; my active interest in physical
anth is mainly conculture-related, and has come up on that list before.]

> > Races: the scientific term is "sub-species", for humans > > there are three which are clearly distinguishable, colloquially; > > asians, blacks, and whites. >
John C:
> The great majority of physical anthropologists now reject > the notion that human beings can be usefully divided into > races or subspecies at all. As species go, _Homo sapiens_ > shows very little genetic or morphological variation. > Indeed, at the DNA level, there are more differences between > orangutans on Borneo and those on Sumatra than between > the entire population of human beings and chimpanzees > taken together! Skin differences are indeed skin-deep.
> Uh, no. There is ONE subspecies of Humanity, Homo sapiens sapiens, as > distinguished from the extinct Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Races are > not scientific, they are cultural constructions, altho there are > differences between people in different continents, there is no rigid > division. There is no point at which you can say "east of here, you > have Asians, west of here you have Europeans", nor could you analyze DNA > and say "this is Asian DNA" or "this is African DNA", unless, I suppose, > you were to concentrate on the areas responsible for skin coloration and > the like. > > And as John Cowan has already pointed out, the difference is quite small > between the varieties of humans. Indeed, the difference WITHIN a group > is greater than that between groups. That is, the difference between > two unrelated whites is greater than the difference between blacks and > whites, which consists almost purely of appearances, plus a few small > genetic differences like sickle-cell anemia among blacks or cystic > fibrosis among whites.
It is of course true that the racial categories that most people operate with are socially constructed and have scant empirical basis. But I would like to query -- without necessarily disputing -- the assertion that human subspecies -- in at least some relevant sense of that term -- don't exist. I asked, on Conculture (iirc), for advice on reading in physical anthro (especially on prosopography). The most pertinent advice I got was from Brad Coon, who suggested the works of Carleton S. Coon [a very distant relative, since you ask]. Off I went to our university library & found in the very crap and unmodern half-shelf section of phys anth books that the only really scholarly works were by Coon. I found them very impressive, but I also had the impression that they were obsolete (though not that obsolete, because Coon wrote the relevant entry in my 1989 edition of Encyc Britannica) partly because they were written in the 50s and 60s on the basis of then scant and cutting edge knowledge and partly because what he claimed didn't square with my impression of the current received wisdom. For example, he argues that Neanderthals are ordinary sapiens adapted for an ice age climate. I found that on the face of things more plausible than the current mainstream view, but then I haven't read the rationale for the current mainstream view. As for races, Coon argues that races antedate the sapiens species. His idea is that erectus spread out through Africa, Europe, Asia, Australasia and that through adaptation and drift there developed races, i.e. statistically salient clusters of various biological features (not including pigmentation, of course). An example is that there is a higher incidence of carabelli's cusps in caucasoids (cusps on inside of molars -- a maladaptive trait IMO, because the carabellis on my wisdom teeth are sharp & often nick gashlets in my tongue). The sapiens species spread not by the movement of people but by the movement of adaptive sapiens genes, and these superimposed themselves upon the existing races. At points Coon seems to hover on the verge of entertaining an idea that some would judge racialist, namely the idea that racial differences might include not just those that most people would judge trivial, such as details of dentation, but also ones that people would judge significant, such as 'intelligence' (perhaps judged by average cranial capacity, which NB is used as a criterion of intelligence in distinguishing among hominid and pongid species). For example, he sees the Caucasoid and Mongoloid races as having developed in areas of great environmental diversity and high genetic traffic, while the Australoid, Capoid and Congoid races didn't. He suggests that the Caucasoid and Mongoloid races were therefore more all-purpose adapted, and correlates this with the hypothetical spread of Mongoloid dominance into former Australoid territory and also, iirc, with greater average cranial capacity of the mongoloid race compared to the australoid. (Needless to say, Coon does not to the least degree extrapolate from empirical biological differences to moral and political issues about the rights and worth of individuals.) It's my impression that ideas like these are nowadays viewed as nazism dressed up science. Me, I don't think that the idea that race has no biological basis can be squared with who you see winning when you watch the Olympic Games. The intellectual sin of biologically-founded racialism is in judging people on the basis of their race (or even, arguably, in saying individuals have a race). The moral sin of biologically-founded racialism is in distributing people's rights on the basis of their biology. I can well believe that Coon's theories have been superseded, but I would be grateful to pointers to equivalently magisterial works that represent the current state of knowledge and the empircal basis for it. --And.